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Harper Reed, Obama's Former CTO, Says Data Isn't Everything

Motherboard spoke to Reed at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam.

This article originally appeared on Motherboard Netherlands.

All over the world, populists have been gaining the upper hand. Donald Trump might be the best-known example, but it's a widespread phenomenon that's evident in everything from the Arab Spring to the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines—a man who claims he knows nothing about economics and never sleeps without his mommy's old blanky.

Social media has changed the nature of elections, but the question is whether it strengthens or even weakens democracy. Demagogues like Trump now have a huge reach: They can easily respond to the people's wishes, but can perhaps just as easily manipulate them. I proposed this idea to Harper Reed, who was CTO to Barack Obama during his 2012 reelection campaign.

Reed was quite unexpectedly asked by Obama to set up his digital strategy. Right away, he gathered a team of tech nerds to assist him in the development of the Gordon app. With this app, Reed collected a huge dataset of voters' behavior from social media, which could be used in the reelection campaign.

Using the data, his team was able to identify potential voters based on information such as likes, shared videos, and online conversations. The project appeared to be such a success that several media outlets described it as a key factor in Obama's reelection.

Motherboard Netherlands spoke to Reed about data, democracy, and the 2016 presidential campaign.

MOTHERBOARD: Hey Harper. Have the presidential candidates of 2016 been looking at the things you did in 2012?
HARPER REED: I am mostly afraid that we will accidentally elect a Nazi as president.

You'll see that every campaign has embraced the importance of data. However, I'd like to debunk the idea that data is the most important aspect.

Trump said recently, "Data is only data. I will enter the White House purely on character." That was smart. Since 2012, media reports make you believe that data is the most important element in election campaigns, as though candidates could win because of their collection of data. The reason Obama won the election in 2012 is because he was the best candidate.

It is about character; Trump is right about that. He is just the only one to say this out loud. That the media do not understand this simple fact is actually quite peculiar.

"Data is just a tool for the campaign"

It surprises me to hear you say this. With data from potential voters, you can build a political story. It's an important basic ingredient for a narrative that could help candidates attract voters.
Of course, but it is certainly not all about the data. You need to charm people, and then it's nice to know what they find important. But on average, voters really don't care about what data you possess. Data is just a tool for the campaign. At most, it can be regarded as the oil that makes the machine run smoother—for instance, the local teams were more informed about who they could approach best.

The media sometimes seems to forget this when they write about data.

How else did you use data?
We were active on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and even Pinterest. Although we couldn't know everything, we could estimate what people thought about important themes such as abortion or health care, based on their likes and shares. Basically we used our dashboard —the technology to organize the data—to reach out to people with our message.

Could you explain to me how you were able to gather one million volunteers?
We developed a sort of online office for the campaign. By means of this dashboard, volunteers were able to collaborate, have meetings, and organize events. This way, we could reach many volunteers. People could easily apply and also see which people in their surrounding area were active in the campaign as well. The design of our system was so simple that even my mother could understand it. Therefore, it was easy for people to participate.

For me, that is actually the standard I adhere to when I develop something: Everyone should be able to use it.

The 2012 campaign was, according to many, a great success because you managed to reach people on a personal level. You targeted them through analyses of their behavioral patterns. This also gave rise to criticism. Certain media outlets claimed that your approach was virtually invading people's privacy.
The media has no idea what big data even is. They are afraid of it. The purpose of the data was to listen to people; that is how data should be used. We messaged people via social media if we thought they would be interested in the campaign.

The idea was never to bother people, but to facilitate a discussion on the themes that they regarded important. Micro listening was the most important thing we did in our campaign. Nobody was bothered or freaked out by that, except for the media.

Listen: Will the 2016 Election Be Won Online?

Big data can help an activist movement become huge. But abuse by those in power is lurking. How can the development of data analysis empower democratization?
Big data can be leveraged for good as well as for bad, that's true. Dan [Daniel Shulman, CEO of PayPal] speaks about democratization of data as an issue of access. How do you get as many people as possible involved? My answer to that is user-friendliness. If you make things easy, more people will participate, whether it concerns a political process or something else.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am mainly focusing on PayPal and mobile phone commerce now. That sounds a bit dry, but it's actually very interesting. Mobile commerce currently doesn't work very well. I hope I can make payments just as intuitive as in the banking market. If you see something you really like, you should be able to immediately buy it. This is a very different process to a political campaign; it's much slower.

Do you have any plans for the future? Would you ever want to be CTO of a presidential campaign again?
No dude, no more politics. It's horrible! I've been working on mobile commerce now for over three years and I am not going to quit until I have transformed the world of mobile payment methods.


Harper Reed spoke at the11th The Next Web Conference on May 26-27 in Amsterdam.